Bring us the head of Don Zimmer. And the right arm of Greg
Maddux. And those wristbands worn by Barry Bonds, who has
self-portraits printed on the terry cloth, giving new meaning to
the term self-absorption. Bring us the gut of Ken Kaiser. And
the red-white-and-blue bunting of Yankee Stadium. And grown men
named Dusty, Junior, Chipper and Bip. Because now is the time to
take notice of those things that make baseball unmistakably
baseball--to give thanks, at long last, for the arrival of
October (from the Latin octo, meaning eight, and ber, meaning
it's cold out). October brings eight teams playing games in the
cold, games that we actually care about.
Which is not to say that the regular season was irrelevant or
that it was merely (in the words of Atlanta Braves pitcher John
Smoltz) "our preseason." But let's be honest: For all its
manifold charms, the baseball season consists of roughly as many
games--2,268, played in 181 days--as the NFL plays in a decade.
And every one of those ball games is broadcast, so that baseball
becomes like the thrum of traffic or the hum of air
conditioning. It's background noise, easily unnoticed. Until
somebody turns it way up.
Last week somebody turned it way up. Everybody turned it way up.
The playoffs are baseball turned up to 11, with play that is far
sharper and games that are ineluctably weirder than anything
staged in the preceding six months. Even the two lopsided
series--Atlanta over the Houston Astros and the Florida Marlins
over the San Francisco Giants, both in three straight--made for
In the three years of Division Series play, six of the 12 series
have been sweeps. But the mere act of watching games in those
series has provided an illicit pleasure, since many of them have
been played on workday afternoons, as was the case last week in
Atlanta and Miami. The quintessential postseason games are
played in swaths of shadow slanting across grass outfields that
are mowed in diagonal stripes, like a school tie. Which is only
appropriate, since watching the playoffs means playing hooky.
Another beauty of playoff baseball is the comforting
predictability of it all. You know exactly what's coming on
every pitch: Which is to say, something you've never seen
before. So Astros pitcher Mike Hampton was battling the Braves
to a standoff in Game 2 until the fifth inning, when his gaze
went as blank as the out-of-town scoreboard and he couldn't
throw a strike, walking four consecutive Braves and losing the
game (and quite possibly his mind).
And that was nothing. In San Francisco last Friday night, a
leftfield wall deftly played an outfielder when a groundskeeper
closed a door in the wall just as a ball was caroming off it.
The door acted like a pinball flipper, bamboozling Bonds, the
Giants' six-time Gold Glover, and allowing a Marlins run to
score. Just like that, the West Coast had its own Jeffrey Maier.
Jeffrey who? If you don't know, then you don't follow the
playoffs, which every year summon from obscurity instantaneous
heroes. So until last week, the great mass of Americans thought
Renteria was a rash, perhaps one you get from rented bowling
shoes. But then Florida shortstop Edgar Renteria slapped the
game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 against
San Francisco and was mobbed by his teammates and manager Dusty
Baker. With the wave of a wand, he
became--abracadabra!--Francisco Cabrera. (And if you don't know
who he is...oh, never mind.)
The corollary, of course, is that the playoffs can erase a
lifetime of hard work in about an hour. Welcome to Goatcrafters.
When Houston's formidable trio of Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and
Jeff Bagwell went 2 for 37 against Atlanta last week, the Killer
B's were instantly ridiculed as the Killer Breeze. The Seattle
Mariners' otherwise-invincible Randy Johnson lost to the Orioles
twice in five days. Bonds's 3-for-12, no-homer, two-RBI series
actually raised his lifetime postseason average to .200, where
he may reside forevermore, in a tollhouse on the Mendoza Line.
(Cf. Mike Bordick, the Orioles' number 9 hitter, who was 4 for 6
with two walks and four RBIs in the first two games of their
series. Cf., by the way, is Latin for compare. It doesn't stand
for centerfielder. But we understand: You have baseball on the
In Houston, a city that only turns out for a winner, the Astros
drew a crowd of 53,688 last Friday, a baseball record for the
Astrodome. Even Fay Vincent, the phlegmatic former commish,
couldn't stay away, showing up next to Braves owner Ted Turner
at Turner Field, which is now known in Atlanta as The Ted.
The Ted, The Jake, The Stick. If you ignore the new corporate
names of some stadiums (and do ignore them: What those companies
are paying for is your complicity in their publicity), then
baseball has recaptured an old-time feel this October. Notice
how many players, not merely the Indians, are wearing knee-high
socks; how many umps are overweight, blind or both. There's deja
vu all over again all over the place.
On Sunday night Cleveland's Orel Hershiser narrowly
outbulldogged New York's Dwight Gooden, who got the start when
David Cone was scratched. Sound familiar? Sandy Alomar Jr.,
whose old man appeared in the '76 playoffs for the Yankees, tied
the game for the Tribe with a solo home run in the eighth and
looked, as he rounded first with his fists raised, a little like
Steve Garvey. Or Kirk Gibson. Or Kirby Puckett. Or Joe Carter.
Bobby Cox, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland looked on
from the dugouts last week. These could be the 1988 playoffs. Or
the '90 playoffs. To those who say baseball ain't what it used
to be, we say: Baseball is exactly what it used to be.
At least it is in October, when the playoffs can pull off the
impossible. Think about it: During this month, an endless season
actually seems fleeting and the games themselves too short. The
postseason opened with a masterly matchup between Atlanta
righthander Maddux and Houston righthander Darryl Kile, starkly
reminding fans how few superb pitchers remain. It took a scant
two hours and 15 minutes for the Braves to win, 2-1, and the
game really did seem to be over before it was over.
When time gets telescoped like that, aging is accelerated. Just
take a gander at the wondrous mug of Zimmer, the Yankees' bench
coach: His face looks like a beanbag chair that's been sat on by
a fat guy, which is exactly what October will do to you. It
turns your stomach lining inside out so that it matches your
rally cap. And it comes not a moment too soon. After a summer of
soothing white noise, October is much more than the playoffs.
It's the payoff.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Off-the-wall antics were de rigueur as outfielders like Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. tried to keep balls in the park.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Bagwell was part of the Astros' Killer Breeze offense that flailed and failed against the Braves' parsimonious pitching. [Jeff Bagwell batting]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Brady Anderson had that rundown feeling after he was caught off third and tagged out by Seattle catcher Dan Wilson.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER In his hour of triumph, Leyland found time to give Baker a compassionate pat. [Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker]